What is behind Liverpool's slump in form and how can they get back on track?

By Alex Keble 18 Apr 2024
Jota, Alexander-Arnold

Alex Keble analyses the Reds' finishing, the impact of defensive injuries and the return to fitness of key stars

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In the space of four days, Liverpool’s season and Jurgen Klopp’s farewell came crashing down. Or at least that’s how it felt to many onlookers in the aftermath of Sunday’s shock 1-0 defeat to Crystal Palace.

It isn’t as bad as all that. The absurd standard set by Manchester City in the Pep Guardiola era has warped our thinking.

Until very recently losing a match in the run-in was the norm, and certainly no disaster.

And we might be in the midst of one of those seasons. Arsenal’s defeat on Sunday showed they aren’t invincible and there is evidence Man City will also drop points over the next five matches, as we highlighted earlier this week.

Liverpool, then, have time to recover and lift the title.

But to do that they will need to arrest the slide. Klopp’s side have won just two of their last five matches in the Premier League and four of their last nine across all competitions, being knocked out of the UEFA Europa League on Thursday by Atalanta.

Here’s a look at what’s been going wrong over the last few weeks, and how Liverpool can get back on track.

Goalscoring has become a problem

It is widely documented that Liverpool top the charts for the most points won from losing positions (27), which means a) they are superb at coming back from a goal down and b) they fall behind too often.

Those two things used to happily coexist for Liverpool, right up until the goals dried up a few weeks ago.

Over the course of the Premier League season Liverpool have scored 72 goals from an Expected Goals (xG) of 74.66, making them one of just three clubs to underperform against their xG by at least one goal.

Liverpool attacking performance 23:24

That record is accounted for entirely by games in March and April. Liverpool have underperformed against their xG in five of their last six Premier League games, having overperformed in each of their previous six before that.

Liverpool's last six PL matches
Match Liverpool xG xG swing
Nott'm Forest 0-1 Liverpool 2.1 -1.1
Liverpool 1-1 Man City 2.7 -1.7
Liverpool 2-1 Brighton 2.8 -0.8
Liverpool 3-1 Sheff Utd 1.8 +1.2
Man Utd 2-2 Liverpool 3.7 -1.7
Liverpool 0-1 Palace 2.8 -2.8
Total: Nine goals 15.9 -6.9

Add to that their 2.6 xG in a 3-0 defeat to Atalanta last Thursday in UEFA Europa League, and it is pretty obvious that Liverpool’s problem is a case of finishing the chances they create.

In fact, isolating their three most recent matches – before which nobody foresaw any problems - Liverpool have scored two goals from a grand total xG of 9.1.

In those matches Liverpool’s forwards were all wasteful.

Performances v Man Utd, Atalanta & Palace
Player Goals xG
Salah 1 1.92
Nunez 0 1.52
Diaz 1 1.22
Jota 0 1.11
Total 2 5.77

Indeed, only Everton (-9.54) have a worse underperformance of their xG than Liverpool (-3.87) in 2024 in the Premier League.

Had Liverpool hit their xG against Manchester United and Palace, they would have picked up six points – and been four clear with six games to go.

Injuries have disrupted the defence

Liverpool could have got away with some profligate finishing if they hadn’t conceded so many goals recently.

They have only kept one clean sheet in their last 10 matches in all competitions, and have kept just six in 24 games in 2024.

The 2-2 draw with Man Utd and 3-1 defeat to Arsenal spring to mind as games in which Liverpool were far too open, and had they defended better in the first half against the Eagles then, in control at 0-0 in the second half, they may have felt a calmer self-assurance in front of goal.

The problem here is simple, too: injuries have had a major impact on their defensive line.

Incredibly, Liverpool have played 31 different combinations across the back four in 2023/24 and no one combination has played more than four times together, as reported by The Athletic.

Young players like Conor Bradley and Jarell Quansah have been thrown in at the deep end, and while both have performed admirably, it is no surprise that opponents have begun to target that right side.

Brighton & Hove Albion consistently released Simon Adingra down Liverpool’s right in a game the home side were arguably lucky to win 2-1.

Brighton attack locations pitch

Against Man Utd, Quansah’s error gifted Bruno Fernandes an equaliser before Kobbie Mainoo scored from an attack built on Liverpool’s right.

Palace’s winner at the weekend was down the same wing. Bradley rushed out to press Michael Olise (instead of sticking closer to Ibrahima Konate), leaving space for Tyrick Mitchell to get in behind.

As Wataru Endo moved to shut down the big space between Bradley and Konate, Eberechi Eze (circled in black) went unmarked.

Eze goal v Liverpool_

It was all a knock-on effect of a rash moment from Bradley, who has been outstanding in his breakthrough season and, at 20, very small positional errors like that are to be expected. 

He is blameless here, needing time and support as he matures. The point is that Liverpool are unlucky to have to rely on young defenders so often.

Injuries make the team’s overall fatigue worse, too, which has affected Liverpool’s press, further destabilising their defensive work.

“We had moments which didn’t end up in front of our goal, where we were just not together,” Klopp said after the Palace game.

“Let me say it like that, if you press 80 per cent, you better not press at all because it makes no sense.”

Liverpool are struggling to maintain their hard-pressing game for the full 90 minutes and, with young players naturally making the odd mistake, it has prevented Klopp’s defence from covering for the wasteful finishing.

Trent & Jota can prompt a turnaround

Nevertheless, there is no doubt the locus of Liverpool’s worsening form is in attack, not defence.

There is good news on this front.

After a year of injuries like no other, Liverpool supporters will hardly believe their eyes that only three senior players are currently on the treatment table: Joel Matip, Bradley and Thiago Alcantara.

The recovery of key players is more likely to help Liverpool’s attack than their defence.

Diogo Jota’s return is the headline. Among Liverpool forwards he is the only player to have overperformed his xG.

Player xG swing
Salah -1.27
Nunez -4.10
Diaz -2.56
Gakpo -0.33
Jota +4.09

And only five Premier League players have overperformed their xG by more than his +4.09 this season.

Player xG swing
Son Heung-min +5.68
Jarrod Bowen +5.29
Cole Palmer +5.05
Phil Foden +4.96
Chris Wood +4.19
Diogo Jota +4.09

The return of Trent Alexander-Arnold, who came off the bench against Palace, is also good news going forward.

Despite starting just 19 Premier League matches, only Mohamed Salah (60) has created more chances among Liverpool players than Alexander-Arnold (54), and the right-back is also top of the Liverpool charts for open-play successful crosses, with 17.

What’s more, his presence moving up and down the right-hand half-space should bring the best out of Salah, who has been a little rusty since his return from injury.

There is life yet in title challenge

Looking at the fixture list, Liverpool need Salah, Jota and Alexander-Arnold all firing if they are to put together the winning streak needed to lift the title.

Their next two Premier League games, at Fulham and Everton, who have the two best home defensive records (16 and 18 goals conceded respectively) outside of the top three.

Wolverhampton Wanderers and Aston Villa will be stubborn opponents, too. Liverpool need Alexander-Arnold to create lots of chances and they need, Jota, in particular, to put them away.

It’s a big ask, but if Jota and Alexander-Arnold hit the ground running this month, Liverpool can still win the title.

After all, if we ignore the fatalistic chatter, Liverpool are only two points behind Man City, a team not without their own flaws and with tough matches to come.

There will be more twists and turns. There is still time for this small winless run to become the second-act jeopardy that makes Klopp’s perfect ending all the sweeter.

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